What does food mean to you? For many of us, food is more than just what we eat. Apart from giving the body the nutrition it needs, food can also be a representation of one’s cultural identity or beliefs. In many parts of the world, food is also used for celebrating success, societal gatherings and new beginnings. Indeed, food is more than just sustenance.
Just like the rest of the world, Malaysians like me take our culinary arts seriously, too. Food is part of our culture, and it brings us together. We may come from different cultural and social backgrounds, but we all share one thing in common: we love to eat.
With so many wonderful Malaysian foods served all around the country, it’s nearly impossible for me to decide which Malaysian foods are indeed the best, but these are 8 of my top choices I can’t (or might never) get enough of.
1. Sarawak Laksa
An all-time favourite, Sarawak Laksa is a must-eat dish when dining in the Land of the hornbills. In Malaysia, there are many types of Laksa, which have their own unique tastes and looks. While they’re all incredibly delicious, I find Sarawak Laksa to be my top favourite, perhaps because I grew up with it.
Laksa Sarawak is made of six different ingredients: rice vermicelli, shredded omelette, fresh prawns, strips of chicken, bean sprouts and sambal. And lime is served on the side. When combined, these ingredients make up a bowl of aromatic Sarawak Laksa that’ll make you drink up all of its spicy soup. This is a dish I always look for whenever I return to my hometown. You can find some of the best Laksa stalls in Kuching.
A bowl of Sarawak Laksa used to cost less than RM4. Although you won’t find that price anymore, the price you pay today for a satisfying bowl is somewhere around RM4.50 to RM6, which is definitely worth paying for. The more expensive ones usually offer more (or bigger) prawns.
Try it, and you’ll understand why Sarawakians and even Anthony Bourdain love it. The dish is so good that you can even find it on board when flying business class with Malaysia Airlines.
2. Tomato Mee
It’s not always easy to find this dish in West Malaysia, but you have better chances of finding it in East Malaysia. Tomato Mee is basically a noodle dish that’s made of tomato sauce, noodle (crispy or flat), shredded chicken, seafood, egg, leafy vegetables, corn flour, and many more. The word tomato basically refers to tomato ketchup, whereas ‘Mee’ means noodle.
Crispy noodle and Kuey Teow (flat noodle) are typically used for preparing the dish. I personally like my noodle to be crispy, and it’s important that only the right amount of tomato sauce should be poured on the noodle. When poured too much, the hot tomato sauce will make the noodle soggy.
There’s another version of this dish that I like, which uses fried wontons instead of noodles. It’s also very delicious. I highly recommend it to everyone, especially diners who love tomato ketchup. Even though chilli sauce is popularly consumed in Malaysia, there are diners who prefer tomato ketchup to chili sauce. This dish is also perfect for individuals who can’t tolerate spicy food.
The taste of your tomato mee really depends on how it’s cooked. There were a few of it I tried in the past, which I didn’t like very much. But the one I tried at 7th Mile Kitchen was not bad at all. The stall is usually crowded, but you can always ask for takeaways. P.S. You can also find Sarawak Laksa there.
3. Nasi Lemak
Nasi Lemak is a fragrant rice dish that combines ingredients like rice, coconut milk, pandan leaf, anchovies, egg (usually hard-boiled), peanuts, sambal and cucumber. It’s the national dish of Malaysia that can also be found in its neighbouring countries such as Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei and Thailand. Although it’s commonly eaten for breakfast, it’s also served throughout the day.
I never liked Nasi Lemak when I was in school. I was a fussy eater, and I never fancied Nasi Lemak. It just didn’t look appealing to me. Almost everyone in school loved it except me. I didn’t even want to taste it!
I only learned to like it when I tried my first Nasi Lemak in one of my university’s canteens. The dish was simple, cheap, and awfully spicy, yet delicious. Since I had my first Nasi Lemak, I always had it for breakfast before attending my morning classes.
A packet of Nasi Lemak used to cost RM1, but you’ll likely find the cheapest at about RM1-RM2 now. I don’t like it when it’s fancy. You can find many overpriced Nasi Lemak in mid-priced restaurants around the country.
If you ask any Malaysian locals, they’ll likely tell you that the best Nasi Lemak are sold by the roadside, or in small Malay restaurants.
4. Kway Chap
100% non-halal, this pork dish is extremely yummy, but it’s not for everyone. People who love it praise it for its aromatic broth and scrumptious braised pork. People who don’t like it (or hate it) have all kinds of reasons to why this dish is the last thing they’ll eat. Before I discuss with you about the love-hate relationship people have with this dish, I’ll tell you all all about the dish first.
Kway Chap is a dish that features Kway, which is a soy sauce broth served with white rice sheets and a wide selection of pig parts. It’s also served with a hard-boiled egg, fishcake and tofu. A hot chilli is usually served on the side to give it a spicy taste. You can mix the chilli with the whole broth, or simply dip your pork into the chilli instead.
I personally love the dish for its savouring broth and broad rice sheets. Since I’m not a big fan of pig organs, I usually don’t eat them. My mom loves them a lot so she always helps me eat them instead. If you don’t fancy eating pig organs, too, you don’t have to include them in your broth. The price remains the same, though.
But you can let your Kway Chap seller know that you’d like to have more rice sheets or perhaps a whole hard-boiled egg. The hard-boiled eggs served in the Kway Chap I tasted before were usually cut into halves.
This is another dish I always look for when I return to my hometown. Although I find it good, not everyone is into it.
First of all, it’s not meant for non-pork eaters. Secondly, not everyone fancies eating pig innards. I know some people who don’t even like its broad rice sheets, which is why people like my dad exclude them from their Kway Chap. Those who don’t like the herbal smell of ‘Bak Kut Teh’ (which is another wonderful dish found in Malaysia) will likely not be a fan of Kway Chap, too. And it’s clearly not a vegetarian dish.
5. Kolo Mee
Another awesome dish from Land of the hornbills, Kolo Mee is an iconic dish of Sarawak. I haven’t met any Sarawak locals who don’t like it! The dish is simple, featuring char siew pork, noodle, spring onions, and many other wonderful seasonings and marinades.
Although it’s typically served dry with a bowl of soup on the side, the dish can also be served as a soup noodle. You can also choose whether you want your Kolo Mee to come in plain form, or in the ‘red version’ whereby the noodle is mixed with char siew sauce to give it a more reddish appearance. The red version also tastes sweeter than the plain one. I like the plain form when it’s served as a soup noodle, but I prefer the red version when it’s served dry.
Although Kolo Mee is originally a non-halal dish, the halal version can also be found in Sarawak. Beef is used instead of pork. It doesn’t taste like the non-halal version, but I find it very appetising, too!
6. Nasi Paprik
If you’re into spicy food, I highly recommend Nasi Paprik. Nasi is Malay for rice, and Paprik or ‘pad prik’ is a Thai phrase where pad means stir-fry and prik means chilli. This rice dish is usually served with chicken or seafood, cooked with green beans, red onions, dried chillies, tomato sauce, lemongrass, vegetables, and many other local ingredients.
If you don’t like plain white rice, you can opt for fried rice instead. The fried rice version offers more ingredients, and it also tastes a little better than the plain white rice version. As for me, I like to have my paprik with plain rice.
My friends from all around the world who tried this dish said they loved it. You should’ve seen their clean empty plates!
7. Char Kway Teow
The name of the dish literally means ‘stir-fried ricecake strips’. It’s a delicacy popularly served all around Malaysia, which can also be found in Brunei, Indonesia and Singapore. For many Malaysians and Singaporeans, Char Kway Teow is considered as a national dish and an all-time favourite.
Char Kway Teow is a dish that features stir-fried flat rice noodles mixed with shrimps, cockles, eggs, bean sprouts, soy sauce and spring onions. A highly-heated Chinese wok is used to prepare the dish, and while it’s being cooked, you can usually see a long queue of people waiting for their orders. It’s a typical situation to be in when you buy your Char Kway Teow from the streets. Hey, the best ones are usually the ones sold by the roadside!
Malaysian locals will likely tell you that Penang has the best Char Kway Teow in town. I admit that Penang has really good Char Kway Teow, but I also found some really good ones around KL. In fact, the state of Malacca has pretty decent ones, too.
When it comes to local food, Malaysians always know where to get the best food in the country. If the whole nation agrees that Penang has indeed the best Char Kway Teow in town, then you need to go there and try it for yourself.
When you do get to Penang, make sure you include Char Kway Teow into your list of must-eat Malaysian dishes. That way you’ll understand why Penang locals are extremely proud of their Char Kway Teow!
Note: This dish is also vegetarian-friendly. It tastes really good even when the meat and seafood are excluded from the dish.
8. Roti Canai
I dare to say that everyone in Malaysia loves Roti Canai. It’s basically an Indian-influenced flat bread that is served with curry and dhal on the side. The curry can either be a chicken or fish curry, or both types can also be served in one plate. Although it’s very popular in Malaysia and Singapore, you can also find it served in Malay, Aceh and Minangkabau restaurants in Indonesia.
Malaysians love to have theirs at Indian and Mamak restaurants. The cheapest Roti Canai I ever paid for was RM1.20. There’s a small Indian restaurant just in front of my previous apartment in Old Klang Road where my friends and I used to have our Roti Canai. It’s so good and cheap. It’s difficult to find restaurants that serve Roti Canai for RM1.20 in the city centre of Kuala Lumpur. You could be paying up to RM4 for it in fancy restaurants.
There are many other versions of flatbreads available around the country. My other favourites of flatbreads are Roti Telur (roti + egg), Roti Susu (roti + condensed milk) and Roti Bawang (roti + onions). They’re slightly more expensive than Roti Canai, but they’re all served with the same sides.
If you’re a vegetarian, you can go to Brickfields to enjoy a nice plate of Roti Canai at Chat Masala.